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From Woodshed to Jam Session:
Making the Transition with Confidence

by Mark Heinemann

© Copyright 2002 Mark Heinemann. All rights reserved.

There comes a time in every musician's development when it is necessary to make the transition from practicing at home to playing with other musicians in order to solidify what they have learned and hone their skills. You can spend years practicing in the woodshed but you still won’t be able to achieve what you could in the company of other musicians with all the unexpected surprises that occur when music is created spontaneously. What is the purpose of a jam session? It is an environment which is created so people can excel and improve, transcend their limitations, make music cooperatively and hopefully, learn something new.

One excellent incentive for playing out at a jam session is the opportunity to work with good musicians. Whenever you play with good musicians there is a strong possibility that you will learn something. At the outset people are often afraid of playing with accomplished musicians because of their own lack of experience or technical skill. Most great musicians that I know welcome players who haven’t reached their level yet; they are secure in their own ability and would want to help make you sound better at the same time. Years ago I was taking a lesson with an excellent pianist and we were taking turns soloing on a standard. When it was my turn I dropped a few notes, so that the end of my solo felt ragged. When my teacher started his solo, it was as if he scooped up my dropped notes, imitated them and turned the transition from my solo to his into a coherent piece of patchwork music.

If someone is trying to prove how good they are as a player, then what standard are they using? Does that mean being technically proficient with the ability to play fast notes and fancy chords? Fortunately in the Blues a lot of that doesn’t hold up. What communicates is feeling and the power to squeeze a whole lot of soul into a few notes. I think of John Lee Hooker and the sound of his guitar which is so raw, unpolished and at the same time each note is packed full of feeling and music.

What are important things to remember and how do you get ready to play out at jam sessions?

Repertoire

Visit jam sessions and get familiar with the tunes that are going to be played. Tunes like Have You Ever Loved A Woman, Rock this House, Got My Mojo Working, Sweet Home Chicago and of course Stormy Monday are just a few of the many standards that are played out at jam sessions.

I recommend getting recordings of these tunes and learning the, chord changes, intros, outros, turn arounds and signature licks that are identified with those tunes and give them their unique flavor. For example the tune You Don’t Love Me, written by Willie Cobb and recorded by The Allman Brothers on their "Live at the Fillmore East" album, has that fantastic lick that is played in unison by the whole band.

Tuning

When you go to a jam session being able to play in tune is important. If you don’t have a guitar tuner then get one. It is a great investment and can save a lot of heartache when you already may have to deal with nervousness when playing in front of other people.

Rhythm and Knowing the Changes

When playing on tunes there is an accepted structure that becomes the foundation for the vocals and all the soloing that happens on top of it. In many Blues songs the structure is based on a 12 bar 1-4-5 progression. It is really important to be attentive to the changes and to feel and know when you are moving from one chord to the next. If you move to a chord before it is time then that tugs at the structure and the very fabric of the music. The rhythm section needs to be supportive of the soloist so they can be totally freed up to solo.
Tied closely to this is being able to play with good rhythm and making a commitment to being at the right place and the right time. Even more than playing out of tune, poor rhythm makes it hard to communicate something strong musically. There is a very exact place that you need to be and a good thing to do is to listen to the bass and the drummer, especially the kick drum, and feel the groove they have established and try to lock into that.

Dynamics

Being sensitive to other musicians is very important for the full flowering of a jam session. The key word here is dynamics and being able to listen and work together to make music which has dynamics that flow and change. What makes the Blues exciting is when you can work with the energy and bring it from very soft to loud to soft again. How you can play a solo and with each successive chorus, the band and the soloist takes it up a notch in terms of intensity.

The Strength in Simplicity

In a jam session it is not always necessary to take a solo. If you don’t have the confidence to take a solo then specialize in developing excellent rhythm and paving the way for others to shine. What I ask myself is: "What contribution can I make to further the jam along?" Even something small, a repeated note or a rhythm can become an anchor that helps build a foundation where the music can really fly. My goal is to create something that can set up the next person soloing. Recently I was working with a group of musicians on The Thrill is Gone. As the piece progressed we brought everything down to a one-chord jam on B minor. One of the players played one note every 8 measures. That one note was such a solidifying element to the jam. There came a point when we were dying to hear that one note, because it was so tasty and would mark the start of a new repetition of the groove.
When you go to a jam session always be open and willing to learn from others. Keep your ears and eyes open. Sometimes, ask someone exactly what they are doing. There is nothing wrong with asking. We all have to begin somewhere. Even the greatest of greats, all began once upon a time playing a few notes.

What makes for a good jam session is when we can create an environment that is welcoming and supportive. Where we are willing to encourage each other on to new heights. Inside you will know when you feel welcome and when you feel uncomfortable, and a good musical experience is one where you feel that you can express yourself and you are respected and respectful of others at the same time. There is cooperation and an air of excitement and discovery. No two people can play the same, even if they know all the same licks. Each person is unique and that is something worth celebrating and witnessing. On one of his videos the great Ronnie Earl says to always be right sized when you are playing with other people. Don’t be too big and don’t be too small.

© Copyright 2002 Mark Heinemann. All rights reserved.